The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Advertising Poor Nutrition to Children

Advertising Poor Nutrition to Children

Shoppers and Trends

August 24, 2008

Nine out of 10 advertisements shown during Saturday morning children’s television programming are for unhealthy foods, according to a recent review from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The review looked at 27.5 hours of programming in May 2005 and found that of the 49% of advertisements shown for food, 91% of them were for foods or beverages high in fat, sodium, or added sugars, or low nutrients.
Nutrition-poor foods have dominated Saturday morning advertising since the 1980s and 1990s. Although this is not the first study on Saturday morning advertising – past studies found that the majority of advertisements geared toward children were of low nutritional value – this review is one of the first to access the nutritional quality of foods using quantitative, nutrient-based standards.
Looking at the advertisements from a child’s perspective, it’s not hard to see their pull. Cartoon characters were used in 74% of food advertisements and 26% offered toys or other giveaways. The most commonly advertised food categories were ready-to-eat breakfast cereal and cereal bars (27%), restaurants (19%) and snack foods (18%). Eighty-six percent of the advertisements contained emotional appeals.
Restaurants advertised most frequently were McDonald’s (37% of restaurant advertisements), Burger King (25%) and Chuck E. Cheese’s (21%). Cereals advertised most often were Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes (22% of cereal advertisements), Kellogg’s Apple Jacks (13%) and Kellogg’s Corn Pops (9%).
Fifty-nine percent of the foods advertised exceeded the USDA recommendations for added sugars. One in five exceeded other guidelines, like those for total fat and sodium. A whopping 100% of all advertisements for snack foods, candy, restaurants, and breakfast pastries – a category that makes up 63% of food advertisements – promoted items that were of little nutritional value.
Researchers also found that 86% percent of food advertisements contained an “emotional” message, promoting the products as hip or cool, and that 100% of cereal and cereal bar advertisements contained explicit nutrition and health messages, pushing the products as “part of a complete/balanced/nutritious breakfast.” Only 7% of food products advertised contained half or more of a serving of vegetables or fruits.
“Since children as old as ten years may not understand the persuasive intent of advertising, emotional messages in product advertising may be particularly harmful. Unlike most adults, children cannot separate the emotional message from the product characteristics. As a result, you have a child believing that a product is healthy for them based on a description that may or may not actually reflect recommendations,” says Ameena Batada, Child Health Project Manager, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
All this is bad news considering that only two percent of children aged two to 19 years eat a diet consistent with key USDA guidelines. Current advertising trends are especially disconcerting in light of the fact that childhood obesity rates have tripled during the past two decades, and that one third of children are either overweight or obese.
Children aged three to 11 spend, on average, three hours a day watching television. During this time they see about 5,500 ads. While a few channels, like Nickelodeon’sNoggin, air their kid shows without ads, most channels inundate viewers with ads, both during, and in between the airing of each show.
Numerous factors influence children’s diets, but marketing is increasingly pointed to as an extremely influential force. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies believes that food marketing indeed influences children’s food preferences and choices, suggesting a definite link between these television ads and childhood obesity.
“The role of food advertising is of growing concern, along with the influence of schools, peers, family, and the nutrition environment in community setting. Thirty years of research shows that there is a lot of junk food marketed to children and that children are receptive to and act because of such advertising,” Batada says.
Some manufacturers are trying to amend these practices – at least somewhat. Kraft, Kellogg and General Mills do not advertise their products to children under the age of six. Kraft and PepsiCo have developed nutrition standards for their Sensible Solutions and Smart Spot labels. Thirteen of the biggest food manufacturers have joined a self-regulatory initiative and committed to marketing only foods that meet company-specific guidelines to children under 12 years. Batada says we should remain cautious of these initiatives, however, because often, when one marketing opportunity is closed off, another one opens. But it’s a start.
“We have many concerns that the self-regulatory initiative does not go far enough. The nutrition standards vary from company to company and what is considered advertising is not inclusive of all marketing to children,” says Batada. “Companies should commit to strengthen their nutrition standards and to cover all marketing to children in-school, on-package, and digitally.”
There are several national policy options being considered to address mass media advertising, and several localities – including one state – have policies to address junk-food marketing in schools. 
Retailers can help improve the situation by focusing on the promotion of more fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products and whole grains. Other actions they can take include replacing junk foods with healthier foods at checkout counters, eliminating in-store displays for junk foods, and clustering sweets and sodas in a few designated aisles – so that parents can skip these aisles if they so choose.